The recent high-profile sexual harassment accusations leading to public humiliation and terminations has highlighted the need for companies to properly train their supervisors and employees on what is and is not harassment. Just as these allegations are appearing on the front pages of newspapers, on October 4, 2017, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) launched two new training programs: Leading for Respect (for supervisors) and Respect in the Workplace (for all employees). Instead of traditional compliance training, which focuses solely on legal definitions and standards for liability, the new programs provide an exciting training alternative for harassment prevention conducted by EEOC Training Institute staff. The training programs focus on respect, acceptable workplace conduct, and the types of behaviors that contribute to a respectful and inclusive—and therefore ultimately more profitable—workplace. The programs are customizable for different types of workplaces and include a section for reviewing employers’ own harassment prevention policies and procedures. The training was developed by an outside vendor who was part of the task force. The district offices will be rolling it out, offering it as a fee for service like any other training services offered by the EEOC.
“We always said the report was just a first step,” said EEOC Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic, coauthor of “Report of the Co-Chairs of the EEOC’s Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace.” According to Lipnic, “Implementation of the report’s recommendations is key. These trainings incorporate the report’s recommendations on compliance, workplace civility, and bystander intervention training. I believe the trainings can have a real impact on workplace culture, and I hope employers make use of them.”
EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum, the report’s other author, said, “A strong training program is a critical piece of a holistic harassment prevention effort. We know that workplace incivility often acts as a ‘gateway drug’ to workplace harassment. These trainings, therefore, provide employees with the specific skills they need to act respectfully and to intervene when they observe disrespectful or abusive behavior. In short, the program is designed to stop improper behavior before it ever rises to the level of illegal harassment.”
An unresolved issue for employers is where protected speech under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) ends and harassment begins. As Commissioner Feldblum told the institute conference attendees last November, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has found that “civility codes” or “no gossip policies” may interfere with protected speech under the NLRA, which may mean that policing harassment could violate the Act. However, with the new Republican majority on the NLRB, what is “protected speech” may again be narrowly defined so that there is less likely to be a conflict.
Meanwhile, the EEOC’s proposed guidance on sexual harassment issued under the Obama administration has not been finalized. It is expected that the guidance will be voted on once new Chair Janet Dhillon and new Commissioner Daniel Gade have been confirmed by the Senate. The guidance was developed out of the report of the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, co-chaired by Lipnic and Feldblum.
Leslie Silverman is an attorney with Fortney & Scott, LLC, in its Washington, D.C., office. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
H. Juanita M. Beecher is an attorney with Fortney & Scott, LLC, in its Washington, D.C., office. You can reach her at email@example.com.